Jorge Ramos’s Long Game

The New York Times Magazine “Notebook.” September 25, 2015.
Also printed as “The Crossover” in The New York Times “Business Day,” page B1. Monday, September 28, 2015.

On a Tuesday morning earlier this month, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., waited near a side entrance of the Tent City Jail, the open-air compound he operates in Phoenix. Several female inmates were lined up before him, hands behind their backs, ankles linked by chains. The women wore black-and-white-striped prison uniforms — the kind of throwbacks tourists don for photographs near Alcatraz — with the words “Sheriff’s Inmate” on their backs. Arpaio wore a black suit, black shoes and a white shirt. He looked as if he had raided Johnny Cash’s closet.

Arpaio, now 22 years into his controversial tenure in Maricopa County, has proclaimed himself “America’s toughest sheriff”; he is surely its most media-savvy. That morning, he was outside to greet a film crew from the Miami headquarters of the Spanish-language network Univision. Later, while the cameras gathered scene-setting shots, Arpaio prompted the inmates to request signed copies of Tent City Jail’s campy postcards. “Make sure I do sign your card,” Arpaio told his chain gang. “It’ll be worth something.”

Around the corner from Arpaio, near a bright yellow sign that read “No Outlet,” two producers and two cameramen huddled with the Univision anchorman Jorge Ramos, running through their pre-interview preparations. Cameras rolling. Microphone on. “I’m on TV,” Ramos told me later. “I’m constantly thinking about performance and journalistic integrity.” For him, one is no use without the other.

At 57, Ramos may be the most influential news anchor in the Americas. He has been awarded eight Emmys and has interviewed more than 60 presidents from almost every country in the two continents. For 29 years he has co-anchored Univision’s flagship Spanish-language news broadcast, “Noticiero Univisión,” which averages 1.9 million viewers and often grabs higher ratings than English-language newscasts in cities with large numbers of Latinos, like Phoenix. Ramos also hosts Univision’s Sunday morning news program, “Al Punto,” as well as an English-language news program, “America with Jorge Ramos” on Univision’s sister network, Fusion. His interview with Arpaio would run on all three shows.

But most non-Spanish-speaking Americans probably know Ramos best as the journalist who was thrown out of Donald Trump’s press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, in August. Ramos had tried to ask Trump — who had recently declared that “anchor babies” were not American citizens and that he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants — about his immigration proposals. Trump told Ramos to sit down; Ramos refused. “I have the right to ask a question,” he said. Trump shot back, “Go back to Univision,” before signaling for a guard to remove Ramos from the room.

It was a remarkable exchange, and the optics of it weren’t entirely accidental. Ramos arrived almost two hours early to grab a seat in the front row while his team set up two cameras: one to film Trump and one to film Ramos. Even before Trump entered the room, Ramos knew he would stand up when he asked his question. He’d studied Trump, he told me, and noticed that it was easier for Trump to silence reporters when they were sitting down. He also wanted to be equal to Trump, visually, and to be miked separately so that, for his audiences at least, his voice would be as loud as Trump’s.

When I suggested that such preparations turned the news into a kind of contrived performance, Ramos countered that performance was very different from acting. Television news, he argued, can’t be wholly improvised. Flights need to be booked. Press passes must be requested and approved. “TV doesn’t happen,” he said. “You produce TV.” And if the cameras are not rolling, there is no story.

To prove his point, he cited the case of The Des Moines Register, the Iowa newspaper that was denied press credentials for at least one Trump campaign event after it published an editorial titled “Trump Should Pull the Plug on His Bloviating Side Show.” “What’s more important?” Ramos asked me: the ejection of one reporter or the exclusion of an entire newspaper? Yet for the average television viewer, The Des Moines Register incident might as well never have happened. It occurred off-camera.

Ramos wanted to ask Arpaio about the Department of Justice’s recent finding that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office singled out Latinos for traffic stops (and thus, indirectly, for deportations), called Latino prisoners “wetbacks” and “Mexican bitches” and failed to adequately respond to allegations of sexual violence against female prisoners. Arpaio, for his part, seemed excited about the opportunity to argue with Ramos, announcing their interview on Twitter a week before it happened. “In fact, I was hoping all the media would come,” Arpaio told me. “But he asked me not to do that.” Arpaio had even tried to get Donald Trump to join the interview. (Trump declined.)

Here, in microcosm, was the new terrain of American immigration politics. Since the 1990s, Univision’s domination of the Spanish-language broadcast market has made Ramos and his co-anchor, Maria Elena Salinas, figures of great interest for presidential campaigns. (In 2014, “Noticiero Unvisión” had more than twice the average daily audience as its closest competitor, Telemundo’s “Noticiero Telemundo.”) Politicians saw Ramos as a kind of emissary from that vague territory known as the Hispanic vote; acceding to an interview was a way of telegraphing that they took the concerns of Latinos seriously and valued their approval. But the advent of Trump, whose tirades about border-crossing rapists seem to have only improved his standing in the polls, has turned this relationship on its head. Now talking back to Ramos about “illegals” can be a politically valuable bit of theater, and it isn’t bad press for Ramos, either. Watching the footage of Trump ejecting Ramos from the Dubuque press conference, my husband observed that the scenario could not have served each party better if they had agreed to a script. Ramos shone like a hero to his followers. Trump shone like a hero to his.

“I want to ask you a favor,” Arpaio said to Ramos. “I know you’re popular. You’re a journalist. I respect you.” They sat inside the open-air prison at a square picnic table shaded by a canvas tent. Around them, the cameramen adjusted angles and microphones in near-90-degree heat. “I want to go to Mexico,” Arpaio said. “Can you get someone to welcome me?”

“They don’t like me so much,” Ramos replied.

“Really?” Arpaio said, surprised.

Once the tape was rolling, Ramos began with one of his signature polite, ferocious questions: “Last time we were here I told you that you were possibly one of the most despised and hated figures in the Hispanic community. Now clearly something has changed. Donald Trump has taken that place.” Arpaio chuckled. “Eighty-two percent of Latinos have a negative opinion of Donald Trump, according to a CNN poll,” Ramos went on. “Why do you think Latinos hate you and Donald Trump so much?”

“Well, first of all, I don’t like the word ‘hate,’” Arpaio replied slowly. “It has very serious connotations. Maybe disagree with me. I don’t hate you. Some people hate you. They don’t really come out and say it.”

Afterward, both Ramos and Arpaio seemed surprised that, despite their profound disagreements, their conversation had been so civil. As we walked from Tent City to his rental car, Ramos said, “I thought he was going to be more aggressive.”

The following day, Arpaio told me: “I’m a little disappointed he was so nice to me. … I worry that he’s getting to like me now. He’ll ruin my reputation.”

Jorge Gilberto Ramos Avalos grew up in Mexico City and arrived in the United States in 1983, at age 24, after his career as a journalist for Mexico’s Televisa network came to an abrupt end. Ramos had reported a story about Mexican psychology that doubled as a critique of Mexico’s authoritarian government, which at the time had been controlled exclusively by the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party for more than half a century. (Its rule would last another 17 years, a streak that once provoked the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to call Mexico the “perfect dictatorship.”) Ramos’s footage included interviews he did with the well-known dissident intellectuals Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. When Televisa tried bowdlerizing the footage with a pro-government spin, he destroyed the tape and resigned, effectively blacklisting himself. Less than a year later, he sold his Volkswagen Beetle and moved to Los Angeles in hopes of restarting his career in the United States. In January 1984, he began working for a Los Angeles station, KMEX, affiliated with a Spanish-language network that would, a few years later, be rebranded as Univision.

Ramos’s English was still so wobbly that he felt nervous about asking questions at press conferences, but his timing was impeccable. Two years earlier, Univision made its first national newscast out of its Miami affiliate, WLTV. Just months after Ramos moved to WLTV to host a morning show called “Mundo Latino,” the staff of the national newscast resigned en masse to protest the hiring of a famous Mexican news anchor named Jacobo Zabludovsky who was known for his close ties to the Mexican government. Ultimately, Zabludovsky went back to Mexico for “personal reasons,” leaving the network in urgent need of an evening news anchor. Ramos got the job. He was just 28 years old.

Ramos’s professional ascent also coincided with the rise of Latinos as the most demographically significant minority group in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1980 there were 14.7 million Latinos in the United States. By 2013, that figure had more than tripled to 53.9 million. In 2010, Latinos passed African-Americans as the country’s single largest minority. When he began working at KMEX, Ramos recalls in his memoir, “No Borders,” the political power of Latinos “was almost nonexistent.” By 2012, however, the Latino vote had become crucial to winning presidential elections, and Univision’s influence rose with the demographic tide. When the network requested that a fourth presidential debate be held and carried exclusively on its network, in Spanish, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama quickly agreed to a compromise: two town-hall-style “forums” aired in September, a month before their English-language debates.

As the 2016 election approaches, Univision’s parent company, Univision Communications, wants to expand its power beyond the Spanish-language market. It has already announced that Univision will hold a Republican candidates forum with The Washington Post sometime before March. But the main instrument of its ambitions is the company’s fledgling English-language cable network and online-media startup, Fusion. A joint venture between Univision Communications and Disney/ABC that started in October 2013 — with Univision handling content and ABC handling distribution — Fusion hopes to attract a millennial audience. The network’s lead news program is “America With Jorge Ramos.” Ramos is so important to the strategy that for months after Fusion’s start, he appeared every night on both “Noticiero Univisión” (in Spanish) and “America With Jorge Ramos” (in English), as well as on Sunday’s “Al Punto” (in Spanish). He averaged 35 interviews a week in all. Since then, “America With Jorge Ramos” has scaled back to Tuesday nights, but Ramos told me that they are prepared to do more as Election Day nears.

Fusion’s fate may be contingent on the network (and Ramos) being a real actor in 2016. This July, in preparation for its upcoming initial public offering, Univision Communications revealed that Fusion posted a net loss of $35 million in 2014. It has no distribution on Comcast or Time Warner Cable, which means it wasn’t available in the Phoenix hotel in which Ramos spent the night before his interview with Arpaio. Fusion makes and airs documentaries — a strategy it plans to intensify in the coming months — but right now as a news organization, it is essentially an online start-up focused on social media and making headlines.

Dax Tejera, the executive producer of “America With Jorge Ramos,” says that profit is not Fusion’s top priority. “I’ve gone into meetings where my bosses have said, ‘We want Fusion and the brand to be ubiquitous with the election,’” Tejera told me at a food court in the Houston airport, as he and Ramos traveled from Phoenix back to Miami. “They’re not saying to me, ‘We want to hit this target with the ratings, this target with the revenue stream,’ which is the traditional speak in an established media organization. Ours is about awareness and brand identity and association.” The idea, he said, tapping his upper arm, was for Fusion’s fans to want to wear their viewership on their sleeve as “a badge brand.”

Tejera pointed to Ramos’s April interview with the Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio as one of the best examples of how they are trying to drive the political conversation. Before the interview, they convened in Ramos’s office to figure out the most visceral question they could ask about gay rights. They went with: “If someone in your family or your office happens to be gay and they invite you to their wedding, would you go?”

“It got all this attention,” Tejera recalled. “It was the new litmus test of 2016. Nobody had asked it, and everybody started asking it. That’s what we are always trying to do.”

The interview was indicative of an effort to expand Ramos’s franchise beyond his historical role as a tribune of Latinos’ concerns and establish him as a more all-purpose newsmaker. In part, this strategy played upon Ramos’s appeal to a fan base that finds him as attractive as, say, George Clooney. It also suggested an assumption that, after the 2012 election, immigration might not continue to be the political flashpoint that it had been throughout most of Ramos’s career.

Among Republican Party eminences, the conventional wisdom following Romney’s defeat was that the party’s political future turned in no small part on embracing immigration reform. President George W. Bush supported the idea of reform in the 2000 and 2004 elections, as did Senator John McCain in 2008. After McCain’s defeat that November, the Republican strategist Karl Rove argued in a Newsweek column charting a future course for the party that “an anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal. As the party of Lincoln, Republicans have a moral obligation to make our case to Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans who share our values. Whether we see gains in 2010 depends on it.”

Instead, the party’s gains in 2010 came thanks to the Tea Party movement, which took a hard line on immigration. During the 2012 Republican primary, Romney tacked to the right on the issue, opposing the amnesty-offering Dream Act and suggesting that immigrants “self-deport” in a January Republican debate. These statements haunted him in the general election, and after his defeat, the party went through another round of soul-searching. Writing days after the election, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that avoiding further electoral disaster “requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word.”

But since Trump’s rise in the polls, Republican candidates have abruptly bolted in the opposite direction. The problem, Romney told Salinas after the 2014 mid-term elections, is that “the number of Latinos that vote in the Republican primary is quite small, and so in the long period of the primary, the people trying to get the Republican nomination are going to focus on those who they think will vote in that primary process,” i.e., non-Hispanic white conservatives. So Bobby Jindal tweets that “we need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.” Jeb Bush defends the term “anchor babies.” Marco Rubio, who once supported immigration reform, tells Fox News that he will not legalize undocumented immigrants during his presidency. And Rand Paul flees from a Dream Act supporter in Iowa, leaving half a hamburger on his plate.

“I had never expected that in 2015 we would get a candidate with such an anti-immigrant position,” Ramos told me in talking about Trump. His own views on immigration have tacked in the opposite direction. In his 2000 book, “The Other Face of America,” he argued for an amnesty similar to the one Ronald Reagan ushered through Congress in 1986, legalizing the status of more than three million people who had been working the United States since before 1982 and could prove that they were not guilty of any crimes. These days, Ramos says that undocumented immigrants must not only be legalized, they must be given a pathway to citizenship. He has even suggested that the United States should consider the possibility of an open, European Union-style border with Mexico.

If such positions have led to accusations that Ramos is an activist, other facts make people wonder about Univision Communications’s bias as well. Fusion’s other major news anchor is Alicia Menendez, the daughter of the New Jersey Democratic senator Robert Menendez. One of Univision Communications’s major stakeholders is the billionaire Haim Saban, a top donor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Ramos’s daughter, Paola, accepted a position with the Clinton campaign in June.

When she took the job, Ramos disclosed the event in a letter posted on the Fusion website. He told me that he and his daughter still speak to each other almost every day, but that their conversations about politics are now strictly limited. They won’t discuss anything connected to his job or hers. That’s almost everything, I pointed out. “It’s almost everything,” he agreed. What do they talk about instead? “Bah,” he sighed. “Relationships, trips, family. That’s much more important than politics.”

Ramos toyed with the idea of running for a Senate seat as recently as 2002, when he mentioned the possibility in “No Borders.” His most recent political book, “A Country for All” (2010), reads like a cross between a white paper and a stump speech. But when we spoke, he insisted that he no longer has any intention of running for any office. He has decided that he can have more impact as a journalist.

Was this simply politics by another means? I asked. “Well, as a journalist, I want to be relevant, no?” he said. “And I want to be a participant, a player, in the country where I’m living. And that’s what I’m doing every single day.”

Over the years, he said, he has developed a philosophy about what sorts of issues a journalist can appropriately advocate for: human rights and freedom of the press, for instance, and battles against corruption and dictatorships. Partisan politics, he said, falls outside of his territory. But Ramos is unapologetic about exhorting Latinos to exercise the political power they possess as a voting bloc. In “A Country for All,” he argues that candidates can no longer expect to win the Hispanic vote “by simply saying a few words in Spanish, showing up at a press event with a politician who has a Latino surname.” Now, he says, Democrats and Republicans alike must deliver concrete benefits to Latinos. A Supreme Court justice. Immigration reform.

On July 16, a month after Trump announced his candidacy, Ramos made a short speech in Spanish on Univision’s annual entertainment awards show “Premios Juventud.” “We’re going to talk about those who love us, but also about those who don’t love us,” he said. He pointed out, to huge applause, that more than four million Latinos have university degrees and more than one million have master’s or doctorate degrees; that they are not narcos, rapists or otherwise criminals. “When they attack one of us, they are attacking all of us,” he continued. “But we already know what we’re going to do. … On Election Day, we will remember who was with us and who was against us. No, we won’t forget.” He repeated the warning in English.

Ramos never named Donald Trump. He never told his audience to vote for Clinton or for Rubio. He simply said, “We will remember.” That night, “Premios Juventud” was the top-ranked program on all broadcast television among viewers aged 12 to 34, beating ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Whatever happens in 2016, Ramos told me, he believes that candidates who openly oppose Latino immigrants will be soon become relics. Trump? “We might read about him in history books, as the last one who tried to do something like that.”

Read and comment on the story at The New York Times.

Jorge Ramos Is Not Walter Cronkite

Monday, August 31, 2015.
“Notebook.” The New York Times Magazine blog.

Shortly after Donald Trump’s bodyguard forcibly removed him from a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, the Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos declared that the ejection had caught him by surprise. As he told George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” “Never in my life, and I’ve been a journalist more than 30 years, have I been thrown out of a press conference.” Technically, Ramos’s statement is true. But anyone who has read his books knows that he has tangled with bodyguards before, even if they weren’t at a press conference.

In his 2002 memoir, “No Borders: A Journalist’s Search for Home,” Ramos recounts that in 1991 he was elbowed in the stomach and knocked to the ground by a bodyguard after accosting a politician, peppering him with questions and making an uncomfortable declaration. This time, the politician was President Fidel Castro of Cuba, and what Ramos said was, “Many people believe that this is the time for you to call for an election.” At the last word, the bodyguard’s elbow struck.

Getting face to face with Castro had taken some creativity. Ramos’s formal requests for an interview were met with silence, so he and a cameraman ambushed Castro outside a hotel room during the first meeting of the Ibero-American Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico. As Ramos tumbled to the ground, his microphone sailing through the air, he recalls, “Castro said nothing, he just kept walking, not even turning around to look at me.”

In the United States’ English-language media, it has become routine to describe Ramos as a kind of Mexican-American Walter Cronkite. Yet in his books, the person he presents as his North Star is not Cronkite but Oriana Fallaci, the fierce Italian journalist who faced off with Yasir Arafat, Muammar el-Qaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini. (Christopher Hitchens was another of her outspoken admirers.) Henry Kissinger once confessed that his interview with Fallaci — in which he called himself a “cowboy” and pleaded helplessly for her to stop asking questions about the Vietnam War — was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”

Reading Fallaci’s 1976 book, “Interview With History,” was a defining moment for Ramos. In the prologue to his 2006 book of interviews. “Detrás de la máscara” — “Behind the Mask” — he writes that he became a journalist “with Fallaci’s questions encrusted in my mind.” (The fact that Fallaci spent her final years writing jeremiads against immigration in Europe lends some oddity to Ramos’s admiration.) Ramos’s clash with Trump, and even his May confrontation with the U.S. House speaker John Boehner, look tame compared with his Fallacian 1996 interview with the sitting Colombian president, Ernesto Samper, in which Ramos asked Samper if he had knowingly received $6 million from the Cali drug cartel for his electoral campaign.

The morning after the interview, Ramos received two death threats and was rushed back to the United States with his cameraman and his producer. Two years later, when Univision tried to return to Colombia to cover the country’s presidential elections, floral arrangements arrived at the company’s offices days before the reporting team’s planned departure, with a note naming all the journalists scheduled for the journey, including Ramos. Univision canceled the trip.

When Ramos flew to Venezuela to interview President Hugo Chávez in 2000, Chavez insisted that their conversation be held outside on a cement basketball court, surrounded by a crowd of bodyguards, government ministers and dozens of the president’s supporters. “Every time I asked [Chávez] something he didn’t like,” Ramos writes, “the people would boo, and when the president responded, his words were followed by applause.”

A few months later, Ramos asked the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari if he had ordered the assassination of his would-be successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in 1994, a death that traumatized Latin American politics for years. Salinas’s response, transcribed in Ramos’s 2001 book, “A la caza del león” (“Hunting for the Lion”), begins with this parry: “Luis Donaldo Colosio was my dear friend.”

Dissatisfied with the absence of an explicit no, Ramos renews his attack: “I want to ask again: You had nothing to do with Colosio’s assassination?”

“I was among those who lost the most with Colosio’s death,” Salinas replies.

It is precisely this pattern of confrontation — not his poker-faced anchoring of the nightly news with his colleague Maria Elena Salinas on “Noticiero Univisión” — that has won Ramos the trust of so many Hispanics. They know that in many countries south of the United States, direct questions can provoke not simply a loss of access but also a loss of life. Ramos’s aggressive reporting on Latin America is possible because he is based in Miami. “The United States is my journalistic trench,” he has written, “and I am extremely grateful.” It’s very unlikely that he expected to contend with bodyguards here.

Read and comment on the story at the New York Times.

An immigrant’s path to success

Review of Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s memoir UNDOCUMENTED: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (Penguin Press)
The Washington Post. August 7, 2015

What price should a son pay for his mother’s decisions?

In 1989, Maria Elena Peralta, a 29-year-old government worker from the Dominican Republic, flew to New York City with her husband and her 4-year-old son, Dan-el, to seek medical treatment for gestational diabetes. Dan-el was told they wouldn’t be in the United States long, but shortly after his baby brother was born, his mother decided she didn’t want to leave. Her husband pleaded with her to return to the Dominican Republic, but Maria Elena was adamant. “I’m staying right here with [my sons],” she said. “For them and their future.”

Maria Elena overstayed her visa, separated from her husband, signed up for welfare and food stamps, moved her children into a homeless shelter, obtained state-subsidized affordable housing and placed herself and Dan-el in permanent legal limbo. Seventeen years later, Dan-el Padilla Peralta graduated from Princeton University with a degree in classics. His memoir, “Undocumented,” is clearly intended to bolster arguments in favor of undocumented immigrants like himself. But his book provides as much ammunition against them as it does in their support.

Those who speak of “anchor babies” will note that, after her husband flew back to the Dominican Republic, Maria Elena survived for years solely on government resources, to which she was legally entitled because her younger son is a U.S. citizen. “Between WIC and welfer,” Padilla Peralta says, “we ate because of Yando,” his brother. Readers will also note that Maria Elena declined to regularize her immigration status by marrying her long-term boyfriend, whom her sons called “Dad,” until after Yando turned 18 and was no longer eligible for benefits. Padilla Peralta writes that the delay was caused by Maria Elena’s desire for a church wedding. “Her position didn’t make much sense to me,” he writes, “but Mom’s ways were her ways.” No kidding.

Those who speak of undocumented immigrants “draining” limited resources will notice that Padilla Peralta accepted coveted scholarships to the famous all-boys prep school Collegiate and to Princeton, which he attended for merely $2,000 a year. Time and time again, Padilla Peralta contrasts his hardships with the luxuries enjoyed by the Collegiate students around him: SAT tutors, European soccer camps, full-floor apartments, etc. Growing up in Harlem with unreliable electricity, brown tap water and stairwells full of drug addicts, he writes, “I tried my hardest not to think too much about how baller their lives seemed in comparison to mine.” Yet he appears oblivious to the envy that intelligent, cash-strapped, legal residents would have felt looking at the scholarships he used to climb America’s slippery social ladder.

Rarely have I felt so intensely ambivalent while reading a memoir. At times, I battled waves of indignation, exacerbated by Padilla Peralta’s penchant for ad hominem score-settling and his tone of belligerent entitlement. A gem from his closing paragraph: “To the haters, a final word: Demography is a bitch. Holla at me if you want me to break it down for you.” Is such trash talk the best this accomplished scholar could produce?

Yet despite my irritation, I found myself rooting for Padilla Peralta’s legalization. For starters, he was only 4 years old when his mother set his fate. Then, around page 230, another, more self-serving emotion arose when he recalls his urge to move abroad because he can’t legally work in America. “If I didn’t have any realistic opportunities in the States,” he thinks, “why not just bounce?” Staring at that line, I caught myself thinking: We can’t let him get away.

For there’s no denying that, macho bluster aside, Padilla Peralta is exactly the kind of person we want in our country. Brilliant, ambitious, resilient, ferociously hard-working, he embodies classic American virtues. Even at Princeton, he distinguished himself as one of the most gifted, diligent people on campus. The best student in his first-year class. The salutatorian of his graduating class. Phi Beta Kappa.

No wonder Padilla Peralta’s 2006 petition for a legal student visa garnered letters of support from Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy and Mark Dayton. It’s not simply a matter of compassion. If you want the United States to succeed as a meritocracy in a competitive global landscape, you have to retain its brightest, most industrious residents, no matter their legal status.

I imagine that Fred Hargadon, who admitted Padilla Peralta to Princeton when he served as its dean of admissions, would have agreed. In a widely circulated 2006 article on the Dominican’s case, he told the Wall Street Journal that Padilla Peralta “could have been from the moon and I would have admitted him.” At 18, he was already that dazzling.

Yet immigration officials declined to rule on Padilla Peralta’s application, provoking him to leave the country for England, before returning two years later on a student visa to complete a PhD in classics at Stanford. Perhaps officials were loath to set a precedent in such a public case, afraid that they might be accused of encouraging undocumented immigration.

Of course, if Maria Elena had come to America in 1889 rather than 1989, their dilemma wouldn’t have existed. Then she would have been accepted without complications, as were almost 12 million immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1900, most of them entering, as she did, through the “Golden Door” of New York City: the Germans, the Italians, the Irish, the English, the Scandinavians and the Jews. Their grit and brains helped make us a superpower in the decades after they decided to call the United States their home.

Padilla Peralta’s case is messy, but it makes me wonder if such “golden door” policies might not ultimately make us a stronger, more competitive nation.

It Should Have Been a Disaster

David Riker meets with his Latino collaborators while making La Ciudad

David Riker meets with his Latino collaborators while making La Ciudad

When David Riker moved to New York City from England in the early 1990s, he found himself renting an apartment in a neighborhood where everyone spoke Spanish. Riker, who had immigrated to the United States to study at NYU film school, seized the situation for inspiration. “I wanted to make a short film about this feeling that there was another city within the city,” he told me during a recent interview for The Intercept. He thought he’d call his film “The Other City.” There was just one problem: he himself didn’t speak any Spanish. All he knew was a little French.

Undeterred, Riker set about finding collaborators who would share their stories and act in his movie. Spanish, he decided with the nonchalance of youth, was just another skill he’d learn while directing. Oddly enough, his plan worked. “The fact that I didn’t speak Spanish probably allowed people to recognize that we needed each other,” he told me. “That it wasn’t just a one way street where I had all the answers.” Sometimes a child would play translator for him and the actors, sometimes another worker would. The final movie was pretty serious, but making it, Riker recalls, “There was a lot of laughter.”

The experience not only made Riker fluent in street Spanish, it shifted his frame of reference. By the time the shooting wrapped, Riker looked around his barrio and felt convinced that “This is the city. The other city is Wall Street or Madison Avenue.” He changed the title of film to La Ciudad. It was a sensation.

Glamour and Double Talk, or How to Convince Someone that Killing Is Cool

Reading Mona El-Naggar’s and Laurie Goodstein’s terrific coverage in the New York Times of how ISIS attracts new members into its ranks, I was reminded of a similar dynamic at work in Julia Reynold’s astonishing new book, Blood in the Fields, which I reviewed for the winter issue of ReVista. Reynolds focuses on a bloody organization located within the United States: the Nuestra Familia gang, which runs criminal activities and murders opponents throughout the western states. Despite the geographical difference, the gang’s predatory recruitment tactics sound a lot like ISIS’s method of appealing to disaffected young adults. As I wrote in my review:

Nuesta Familia seduces boys from broken homes with visions of cash, excitement and eternal brotherhood. Then it manipulates their ethics with double talk that suggests robbery, extortion, and drug dealing are merely types of “work” that serve the noble “Cause” of protecting their communities.

ISIS, El-Naggar and Goodstein show, successfully attracts young men from intact families partly because the society around them feels so broken. It replaces chaos with a sense of purpose, order, and brotherhood — all backed up by a violent and radically conservative interpretation of Islam. Nuestra Familia cunningly deploys a similar co-optation of an established, and generally peaceful, intellectual framework. Its original members

Pirated the civil rights language from César Chávez’s workers’ movement, which has nothing to do with the gang. Yet the sneaky co-optation works. Teenagers who are hungry for accomplishment swallow the rhetoric whole, and through this cunning lens see NF membership – with its daily grind of dealing, intimidation, and assault – as a kind of chivalric code.

That ethical bait-and-switch sounds dispiritingly familiar, no matter where it takes place.

Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Prize-winning explorer of myth and reality, dies at 87

By Marcela Valdes
The Washington Post. Page One. April 17, 2014.

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer who immersed the world in the powerful currents of magic realism, creating a literary style that blended reality, myth, love and loss in a series of emotionally rich novels that made him one of the most revered and influential writers of the 20th century, died April 17 at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.

The Associated Press reported his death. In July 2012, his brother Jaime García Márquez announced that the author had dementia.

Mr. García Márquez, who was affectionately known throughout Latin America as “Gabo,” was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, memoirist and student of political history and modernist literature. Through the strength of his writing, he became a cultural icon who commanded a vast public following and who sometimes drew fire for his unwavering support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

In his novels, novellas and short stories, Mr. García Márquez addressed the themes of love, loneliness, death and power. Critics generally rank “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) as his masterpieces.

“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” President Obama said in a statement, calling the author “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.”

Mr. García Márquez established his reputation with “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an epic novel about multiple generations of the Buendía family in the fantastical town of Macondo, a lush settlement based on the author’s birthplace on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The novel explored social, economic and political ideas in a way that captured the experience of an entire continent, but it also included supernatural elements, such as a scene in which a young woman ascends to heaven while folding the family sheets.

By fusing two seemingly disparate literary traditions — the realist and the fabulist — Mr. García Márquez advanced a dynamic literary form, magic realism, that seemed to capture both the mysterious and the mundane qualities of life in a decaying South American city. For many writers and readers, it opened up a new way of understanding their countries and themselves.

In awarding Mr. García Márquez the literature prize in 1982, the Nobel committee said he had created “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos.”

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” has been translated into more than 35 languages and has sold, by some accounts, more than 50 million copies. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda described the book as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

Mr. García Márquez parlayed his literary triumphs into political influence, befriending international dignitaries such as President Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand, the late president of France. The celebration for Mr. García Márquez’s 80th birthday was attended by five Colombian presidents and the king and queen of Spain.

Yet few knew the penury the author endured before achieving fame. “Everyone’s my friend since ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ” Mr. García Márquez once told a brother, “but no one knows what it cost me to get there.”

Read the rest of this obituary at The Washington Post online

Benjamins or Bullets: How Mexico Became a Narco-Democracy

Photograph by  Anthony Suau. See his terrific series at:,29307,1827101,00.html

Photograph by Anthony Suau. See his terrific series on the drug war in Mexico at:,29307,1827101,00.html

“Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers” by Anabel Hernández
“The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail” by Óscar Martínez
Reviewed by Marcela Valdes
Columbia Journalism Review. November 1, 2013.

This is how it used to work: In the 1970s farmers would pay Mexican officials for permission to plant hectares of marijuana or poppy. “Once the fields had been sown,” an anonymous source tells Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, “they stuck little colored flags on them, according to the arrangement. This meant that when the [government] helicopters flew over, instead of fumigating them they would water them.”

Drug traffickers also paid fees to store their harvest in warehouses, and again to smuggle the drugs over the border into the United States. Through such under-the-table “taxes,” which amounted to about $60 a kilo, the Mexican government fattened its coffers while controlling the production and movement of drugs within its borders.

Today the servant has become the master. Cartels dominate not only large portions of Mexico’s government, but also much of the country’s civil society. Their payroll includes not just army personnel, police officers, intelligence agents, prison guards, business owners, and politicians, but also soda vendors, tortilla sellers, and gas-station attendants. Under their rule, fear has reached legendary proportions throughout Mexico. A man in Ciudad Juárez tells journalist Óscar Martínez that he’s afraid to use public bathrooms because he doesn’t want to find decapitated heads. “It sounds at first like he’s paranoid, or crazy,” Martínez writes, “but it’s happened to him twice.”

How did the Mexican government lose control of its traffickers? An answer can be found in two new books: Hernández’s Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers and Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Together they provide a top-down, bottom-up view of how Mexican cartels have consolidated and corporatized in the past two decades. As the cartels have integrated vertically, destroyed their competition, and diversified their interests, their business has grown more efficient—and so has their cruelty. In fact, a short version of Hernández’ book might run like this: Government officials thought they were training sheep; instead they were raising wolves.

Read the rest of this article at The Columbia Journalism Review online